Intellectual property? Where the hell are the intellectuals?

                                                  James Cagney in "White Heat" (1949)

Stop Me Before I Lecture Again!

There I was working quietly in my study when suddenly ...

I've been invited to give a talk at conference of the Jacques Ellul Society in Ottawa this July 13-15.   It should be a wonderful event.  I'd planned to give an illustrated lecture, "The 'Qatsi' Films of Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass," focusing upon the three films -- "Koyaanisqatsi," "Powaqqatsi," and "Naqoyqatsi" -- and the influence of Ellul's thinking upon their overall conception.  I've given the talk a couple of times before, using selected segments from DVD copies of the movies.  I offer my interpretation of the images and music, drawing upon key on themes in Ellul's writing.  The film clips are treated as, in effect, "texts" for philosophical discussion. 

Alas, as I was making travel arrangements and checking on the technical details of my talk, a strange cloud gathered over the plans.  Below is the email exchange with names changed (to "Fred" and "Prof. Williams") to protect the two fine Canadian scholars who were unfortunately bearers of bad news from the Carleton University pettifoggers. 

    % % % % % % %  

Hi Langdon,

  Just one further question. The university is very concerned with intellectual property rights. I'm assuming you have permissions to use the clips. In case someone asks, however, could you confirm. Thanks. 

    % % % % %

Dear Fred,

No, and I won't bother to get them.  I take this to be fair use for
scholarly purposes and public discussion.  I've given the talk
informally at conferences and on university campuses with no problem,
simply pulling out the clips from the DVD. The only thing I'm doing
differently here (as opposed the Wheaton College version) is to smooth
the transitions by editing segments into a flow easier to sequence with
my lecture remarks.  But if the bean counters are worried, the lecture
will have to be cancelled.

It that happens, it certainly will make a great story I can tell at a
conference on Free Libre Open Knowledge I'll be attending in Quito next
Best wishes,

                     % % % % % % %

Dear Professor Williams,

Could be lights out.

See Fred's  message … and my response.

Best wishes


         % %%%

Hi Langdon,
I agree with your approach. This is a non-paying audience, and you are using clips to illustrate your points, not to act as a substitute for the films. In fact, your presentation can be expected to attract people to a film by the same film-makers. If I were Godfrey Reggio or Philip Glass I'd be very happy with what you are doing.

A request for permission may be interpreted as a request for permission to go beyond fair use, and if such permission is refused what do you do? If the idea was fair use from the start, why would you have to ask?
I hope this gets resolved quickly and in your (our) favour. The University's Film Studies department must have dealt with this question before and I could ask them about their practice.

Professor Williams

 % % % % % %

Hi all,

I am looking into this. As I understand things, Canadian and US copyright law differ on fair use. When used in Canada, Canadian law applies. I don't want to have to deal with permissions, but the university insists that we are responsible for applying copyright.



  % % % % % %

Dear Fred,

I await the results with baited breath.  Meanwhile the story is already the source of great guffas among those preparing for the Summit on Free Libre Open Knowledge in Quito at which I'll be speaking next week.  Open Culture, Open Knowledge indeed!

Even if cleared for takeoff, I seriously doubt I'll attend the Ottawa conference after this absurd affront.

By the way, I receive a credit in the first of the Qatsi films and have known Reggio for decades.  I'm sure he'll be amused when he hears that I'm unable to describe, interpret and reflect upon his work in a free, public forum.

Best wishes,

  * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 
Note (May 22, 2014)

I will supply updates on this situation if the anything changes or if sanity breaks out.  This is the best (worst) personal experience I've had with the insidious consequences of "Intellectual Property" regimes for scholarship and public debate.   

May 23, 2004:  Here are the latest points of clarification.  Evidently there is a new "Intellectual Property" law that has some noble purposes but with annoying consequences for the life of the mind.   I have edited the message below from the  pseudonymous "Professor Williams," excluding parts of the message that point to the person's identity. 
  * * * * * * *

Hello all,
The new copyright law in Canada was designed to protect writers, who generally don't get paid well, in contrast to educators who generally get a decent salary. All too often, excerpts from books have been used in courses and the writer, whose chapters would be reproduced, got nothing. The idea was that just because the purpose is education it doesn't mean that the writer should not be compensated.
The situation with Langdon is very different, in the way I described in my last letter. Far from ripping off the movie-makers, he is providing his own valuable content and encouraging his audience to acquaint themselves with their works. Indeed, we are renting "Visitors" for that very purpose.  The movie-makers should be happy. 
The Canadian copyright law is rather complicated, and bean-counters with less of a concern for the overall knowledge exercise will naturally be conservative. Their natural instinct is to rein professors in, since they are concerned with financial risk-reduction and a lawsuit is one of those lose-lose situations (even if you win, you lose with your legal costs). What we, as educators have to do is to look at the larger picture of what the spirit of the law is, and how we can accommodate our work to it without jeopardizing our own mission.
Lawyers and administrators are not likely to be helpful. I suggest just going ahead ..
  * * * * * * * * * *
Langdon's comment: 
Well At this point I think I'll go ahead an give the damn presentation, intellectual property crimes and 
all.  However, it will now begin with the following introduction, offered James Cagney style: 
"Come and get me coppers!  You ain't takin' me alive!  The only way 
I'm gonna stop is when you rip these lecture notes from my cold dead